Thursday, April 12, 2012

Putting Things Into Perspective

Here's something I read recently. You can find it on page 31 of Irving Bernstein's The Lean Years, a history of the American labour movement in the 1920s and early '30s. First published in 1960, the book is still in print and now features an introduction by the right's bete noire of a few months ago, Frances Fox Piven. Despite it's stridently anti-communist tone, The Lean Years remains a valuable resource.

This excerpt speaks for itself, but I'll state the obvious: we are re-fighting battles previously fought and won by those who came before us. I find this both depressing and hugely encouraging. It is, of course, deeply disheartening to be living in the era of the new robber barons (which reminds me of another great book, Martin Josephson's The Robber Barons-also still in print), but if the battle was winnable then, it is winnable now.

Enough of my blather. Here's what Bernstein (and novelist Sinclair Lewis) had to say about a 1929 strike at a cotton mill in South Carolina:

"As tension built up in the Baldwin mill, the night shift walked out in the early morning hours of October 2, congregating on the road before the front gate. The superintendent called in Sheriff Oscar F. Adkins, who brought along eleven deputies, six of them paid by the mill. When the strikers tried to persuade the day shift not to enter, Adkins released tear gas into their ranks. What follows has been described by Sinclair Lewis:

'This is the story of Old Man Jonas.
When Sheriff Adkins threw tear gas at the strikers, Old Man Jonas, the striker nearest to Adkins, attacked him with a stick. Adkins was broad, fat, strong, about forty years old, armed, and supported by the majesty of the Carolina law, which he represented. Beside Jonas was the distinguished constable Broad Robbins, aged perhaps fifty, but as powerful and menacing as a wolf. And Old Man Jonas was sixty-eight, and so lame with rheumatism that he had to walk with a cane-the can with which he struck the sheriff.
One would have thought that these two proud and powerful guardians of law and order would have been able to control Old Man Jonas without killing him. Indeed they made a good start. Adkins wrestled with him, and Broad clouted him in the back of the head. Jonas fell to his hands and knees. He was in that position when he was shot...
After the riot, Jonas, wounded fatally, was taken to the hospital with handcuffs on, was placed on the operating table, with handcuffs still on, and straightway he died on that table...with his handcuffs on.' *

While Jonas was being handcuffed , the deputies opened fire. Three strikers were killed, three mortally wounded, and twenty-five seriously wounded. All those who died were shot in the back. One deputy suffered a scratched cheek. A reporter for the Asheville Citizen, the only disinterested party present, saw no shots fired by strikers. When the wounded were taken to the Marion Hospital (many workers had contributed towards its construction), they were required to pay in advance. The head nurse explained that the Duke Power Company usually took care of charity patients but would not in this case. Two companies of the National Guard arrived the following day."

plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose...

From Cheap and Contented Labor: The Picture of a Southern Mill Town in 1929.

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